In the long history and evolution of Ag Field Day–beginning as an outreach event to New Jersey’s farmers in the early twentieth century; to one focused more on the George H. Cook campus community and college; and then expanding to a regional event attracting throngs of people from surrounding areas; to the inspiration for the University-wide Rutgers Day, attracting people from all over New Jersey and even surrounding states–Ag Field Day has held a number of longstanding traditions that people look forward to year after year. As the event has grown exponentially, so too have the number of unique, educational and fun-filled activities offered on the Cook/Douglass campus the last Saturday of April. Some of those time-honored activities that we look forward to every year rekindle fond memories from attending as a kid, a college student or as long-time resident in the area: the 4-H dog show, Food Science-made ice cream, cockroach races, egg toss, visits to the animal barns and plant sales.
Of the thousands of people attending Ag Field Day at Rutgers Day, for those going without the intention of buying a plant–chances are, you will go home with a plant or two. In addition to the two large sales powered by an army of volunteers, there are smaller club and program-based sales peppered throughout the grounds. By and large, there is a plant for your every hankering.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when plant sales became an established part of Ag Field Day (AFD). Small club-based sales with student-grown plants would pop up at some of the small booths. A large plant sale featuring commercial vendors selling hanging baskets of colorful flowers took root in establishing the lawn/path next to Bartlett Hall as the go-to destination for a wide variety of springtime plantings. That flagship location is now shared by the two largest plant sale vendors, Rutgers Gardens and Rutgers Cooperative Extension (RCE) of Middlesex County.
Rutgers Gardens’ first presence at AFD in 2005 did not involve selling plants. A small booth selling tee shirts in front of Blake Hall was followed by two years of a small plant sale booth in front of Martin Hall. The Gardens then joined RCE of Middlesex County in front of Lipman Hall for a few years, followed by the massive expansion to its present site. Rutgers Gardens director Bruce Crawford and manager of horticulture Monica McLaughlin provided some insight into what goes on behind the scenes to get thousands of plants ready for AFD. At least 60 Rutgers Gardens volunteers are involved from seeding, planting, and watering in the greenhouse, to labelling and writing descriptions of the plants for the volunteer manual used on plant sale days to describe the plants to customers. The day before AFD, trucks are loaded at the Gardens greenhouse for unloading the next day, starting at 5:30 a.m.
The plant selections are catered to the AFD audience–since people are likely to be carrying their plants around with them all day, the focus is on smaller containers. McLaughlin said that their hanging baskets of flowers are “smaller ones that go easily on handles of strollers.” Crawford notes that easy, light air plants are a hit with students. There are a variety of standard favorites–herbs, vegetable and small fruits, flowers, indoor plants, succulents and hanging baskets of annuals. But the plant sale also never fails to entice gardeners with the unusual–some of which this year include fan flower, Diamond Frost Spurge, popcorn plants (smells like popcorn) and different kinds of snake plants.
The Rutgers Gardens plant sale will also host a few of the vendors from Cook’s Market, the farm market at the Gardens. Also available is info on membership, children’s’ programming and the Spring Flower Fair at the Gardens. The proceeds from the sale supports 16 – 17 full time student summer interns at the Gardens, with five staying year-round.
RCE of Middlesex County has been involved in AFD plant sales in some way or another for 30 years. It was in 1993 when the massive sales Middlesex is known for today began ramping up, under the coordination of Donna Pemberton, now retired program assistant, and Master Gardener Toni Budrow. Despite being retired, Pemberton is still heavily involved, and currently assisted by Master Gardeners Nancy Pindilli and Vivian Morris. Discussions for the upcoming year’s plant sale begin in October and November. Supplies and seeds are purchased in December and January, and then the army of current and past Master Gardener volunteers are deployed, with 30 – 40 involved in the greenhouse, and 50 – 60 volunteers taking three shifts on AFD.
Middlesex RCE abides by the same philosophy as the Gardens – keep up with the old time favorites, and wow them with exciting new things. An array of vegetables, herbs, fruits, perennials and annuals will be available, in addition to new items like a white “vanilla” marigold, Proven Winner Sweet Romance lavender, and a day-neutral strawberry, Albion.
RCE Master Gardeners also refer to a manual to inform gardeners about the plants for sale, while also providing information on sound gardening, horticultural and environmental practices. Funds from the plant sale help support Master Gardener projects as well as other Middlesex RCE programming.
Bill Hlubik, agricultural and natural resources agent for Middlesex County, said, “People sometimes come from a couple states away because they get such good variety of different types of vegetables and herbs from the plant sale, and because they’re grown by us.”
And while some plant sale enthusiasts show up before the official AFD opening time of 10:00 a.m. (which is not encouraged since the volunteers need this time to set out thousands of plants), Rich Weidman, RCE of Middlesex County program associate recommends, “Come by noon–you’ll have a better selection.”
Finally, does getting up before dawn and all the hours of preparation for the plant sale take away from the magic of Ag Field Day? Not for Crawford and McLaughlin of Rutgers Gardens. For Crawford, who attended as a grad student in the early eighties, the joy is “it brings back people who you haven’t seen in a long time.” Laughlin has fond memories of her mother bringing her to AFD when she was young, “It brings together music, plants, animals and food”–a guaranteed good time.
Ag Field Day at Rutgers Day 2019 is April 27 at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick, NJ.
In addition to the diverse offerings, the popular releases from Rutgers plant breeding programs will be available at many of the plant sales. Rutgers 250 and Ramapo tomatoes will be at the Gardens and Middlesex plant sales, and Middlesex will also have the Rutgers Scarlet strawberry plants and also the Rutgers pumpkin habanero.
New Brunswick Community Farmers Market Plant Sale will be located at the main sale location next to Bartlett, and they will have Rutgers 250 tomatoes in addition to heirloom tomatoes, peppers and unique herbs and flowers.
On Red Oak Lane:
CROPS (Cook Researchers of Plant Science) Plant Sale will have the Rutgers 250, Rutgers downy mildew-resistant basil cultivars: Devotion, Thunderstruck, Obsession and Newton. Other plants available are peppers, hot and sweet, kale, thyme, parsley, watermelon, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, okra, lemon balm, eggplant and catnip.
RU Nutty! Rutgers Hazelnut and Dogwood Breeding will have the eastern filbert blight-resistant hazelnut trees and Scarlet Fire® dogwood.
Rutgers Entrepreneurship Ag Program (REAP) has seeds and seedlings of Rutgers’ Pumpkin Habanero peppers and more.
Other plant sales on Red Oak Lane include:
Self-Guided Greenhouse Tour and Plant Sale at the Floriculture Greenhouses has a variety of tropical indoor plants.
The Cook Organic Garden Club will have organic plants for purchase.
On College Farm Road:
Helyar House Plant Sale – Shop a variety of vegetable plants, herbs, and flowers grown from seeds to support the Helyar House Agricultural Program. Conveniently located on College Farm Road, if you park in the Squibb parking lot, HH will hold your plants to pick-up on your way out.